So where are you really from? For so long I wasn’t sure what people were asking me when they posed that question. I’m from Minnesota. It was the only answer that made sense considering I was born here, raised here, and went to school here. Little did I know that being from Minnesota just was not enough of a response for people.
Then I thought, wait a minute, where am I from? And I don’t mean, where was I born, I know the answer to that. I was born and raised in Minnesota. So then when people asked “Okay, but where did your family come from?” I would say: My dad was born in Uganda and my mom was born in Kenya. The response then would be: “So, you’re African?” I was then even more confused because I never identified as African and my parents didn’t refer to us as Africans. We cooked some African style dishes at home; still, it didn’t feel right. At this point, I didn’t know what I was, but knew what I wasn’t.
Being Minnesotan didn’t feel 100% right, and being African didn’t quite fit either, I had some work to do to figure it all out. So “where are you really from?” ended up being a question that wasn’t for the people asking, it was more for me to understand my journey, my families story.
When my mom used to tell me that we were going to Kenya, I never questioned it. I just thought it was normal to go back to Kenya every year. That’s where my family is, that’s where the Memon community is, that’s where the people who look like me and speak my mother tongue come from so what was there to question?
Gradually, as I took more interest in Bollywood and Indian culture such as my clothes, foods, family values, and being friends with other Indians, I thought, wait – could I possibly just be South Asian? How? I’m not from India or any other South Asian country? I think I always knew that I am Indian, but I had no idea how to explain it.
When I got to college, I learned a word: diaspora. Diaspora is a population that moved from its original homeland. Which made sense because there are a lot of people in Kenya who look like me, watch the same movies, speak the same language, and eat the same foods. Okay, so now I know I’m Indian, and my parents were born in Africa. How did we get there? When did that start? Where did we come from?
There’s a small district named Cutch in the state of Gujarat India where my language Cutchi originates. The Memon people (which also originate from the state of Gujarat) speak Gujarati (including my father.) I’ve been in awe of my dad for years as I wondered how he could know the seemingly complicated language. It is all about where he comes from that fills all the questions asked with answers to treasure.
We came from that little district in the vast country of India. But that doesn’t respond to the question of how we got to Africa. The answer being, the East African Railway system. It turns out that my family, going back quite a few generations, were dispatched to different countries in East Africa because of British colonization. During the time that India was colonized by the British, East African countries were as well, those including Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. My family for many generations back were sent as slaves to build the railway system. My grandma on my mother’s side was from Tanzania, so it all started to make sense. Not only because people who spoke the same language from my community were there, but plenty of South Asians who speak Gujarati too.
And lastly, how did we get to the United States? My dad came from a small town called Kumi, Uganda. From 1971-1979 Idi Amin was the president and dismissed all the South Asians from the country. Due to genocide, my father, and his family got a church sponsor from Minnesota. He was 12 years old when he arrived, went to school and then joined the Marine Corps to proudly serve his new country. Much later, he went back to Kenya to meet a girl and marry her. My parents had an arranged marriage in September of 1991. My mother gained her status as she was then married to a US citizen.
See the thing is, people, for the most part, are familiar with the last names Patel and Singh, those two sir names mean that you know that they are from India, or they have family from India. You rarely hear last names like Bagha and Bakhrani and you’re not sure what part of India they are from or if they’re even from India or South Asia at all.
For a long time, I didn’t know who I was or where I had come from. When I got to college, I participated as an executive board member of an organization called Students of South Asia (or SOSA, for short). The friends that I made are people I now call my family. SOSA was my home away from my home. I was able to learn that when you don’t know where you came from, you shouldn’t expect others to know either. My heritage is my home. My history is my power, especially as someone who is the first-generation U.S.-born.